FCC v. Pacifica (1978)
Can the Federal Communications Commission revoke a radio station's license on the basis of obscenity?
The First Amendment of the Constitution states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
In 1973, a father complained to the FCC that his 11 year old son heard a broadcast on radio station WBAI, owned by the Pacifica Foundation. The broadcast was called "Filthy Words", by comedian George Carlin. In response, the FCC wrote to Pacifica, asserting its right that, "associated with the station's license file, and in the event subsequent complaints are received, the Commission will then decide whether it should utilize any of the available sanctions it has been granted by Congress." In other words, the FCC threatened to revoke WBAI's broadcast license if it received any similar complaints.
I lived in New York and was a regular WBAI listener. WBAI and Pacifica were the ancestors of alternative radio, which now includes the likes of Howard Stern. I think you will agree that the Carlin monologue was tame compared to Howard Stern. By the way, George Carlin was not involved in the lawsuit, even though it is informally known as the "Carlin case".
The case revolved around whether Carlin's monologue, which was clearly free speech, could be broadcast on a Federally regulated channel, namely the FCC-licensed radio station WBAI. A radio station is a public channel, and part of the FCC mandate is to protect children from "indecent" speech. The Court had to tread a fine line between asserting the right of free speech against the obligation to protect young children from potentially threatening speech.
The Court indeed was sharply divided. The ruling was a 5-4 decision which asserted that the FCC indeed had the power to apply sanctions, up to loss of license, against a radio station that broadcast "indecent but not obscene" (whatever that means) material at a time when children were most likely to be listening.
This "seven dirty words" monologue(which I wouldn't dare to repeat because I don't want to become the subject of a Supreme Court Case) became George Carlin's signature stand-up routine. He modified it slightly for his album "Class Clown". Since then, the definitions of "indecent" and "obscene" have become even more controversial.
The constitutional issue of free speech vs. government regulation of the public airwaves (now including cable and network television, the Internet, blogs, and even podcasts) is still potentially the subject of future lawsuits. Eric Idle famously recorded a song that he dared the FCC to censor.